When 2020 is said and done, it’ll likely become known as the year of massive uncertainty. But with so much instability (from Covid-19 to crimson skies on the West Coast), corner store culture remains familiar. LEVEL’s “Corner Store Chronicles” series pays homage to the power of the store that delivers the warmth and care that ACME will never replicate. Whether known as bodegas, tienditas, or another term of endearment where you’re from, our hoods would be nothing without them.
In 1949, it was just a fruit stand window.
Linda Cardenas is standing near the same window over seven decades later. It’s now inside and behind the bar part of Cardenas Grocery Bar & Grill. Behind the neon-lit Bud Light clock and above an industrial sink is the window — which Linda’s carpenter father built, and out of which her mother sold fruit to the neighborhood.
As San Antonio’s Castroville neighborhood grew, so did the business, its fortunes rising and falling with the community. Cardenas Grocery went from a modest fruit stand to a small bodega. Eventually, the little neighborhood tiendita added a meat market, which led to a grill, which led to a Bar & Grill. It survived 71 years of progress and changes, including the death of Linda’s 17-year-old brother in the ‘60s.
Wearing a blue face mask below her glasses, Linda sits at a table next to the deli-style counter at the back of the store. “I remember the store wasn’t the same,” she says of that moment. “It struggled, but the community kept coming back. You see a lot of things in life that kind of bring you down. But if you push through, it kinds of makes you stronger. And in the end, you’ll be OK.”
Outside the store, above a huge white Reddy Ice machine and near a voter registration booth, a sign hangs. On it are a happy face and the hopeful words: “Keep Spirit Up! Better days will come!”
San Antonio is a city of sprawl, one so vast it has two highway loops, one nested 11 miles inside the other. Grocery chains, particularly H-E-B, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods, continue to proliferate, as do the housing subdivisions they serve. But in many parts of west and south San Antonio, aging rows of houses feature small, chain-link fences around aloe vera-laden front yards — and it’s in those neighborhoods that tienditas, “little shops,” fill the gap, providing snacks, light groceries, beer (so much beer, especially when the Dallas Cowboys are playing), lottery tickets, breakfast tacos, and more.
There are still dozens of these across the city’s less affluent neighborhoods, such as M & I Meat Market, Botello’s, and J&R Mahal Grocery. But most are now primarily gas stations, or have been bought out and modernized, then stamped with generic names like Food Mart.
Within just a few miles of Cardenas Grocery, I find three neighborhood tienditas that have been closed for years, if not decades, but still stand on corners like dusty post-apocalyptic reminders of more bountiful times. One of them, at 1124 Perez St., escaped being razed seven years ago, but still doesn’t appear to have any historical landmark status. A neighbor tells me she sees people go into the desiccated building to clean every once in a while.
Another neighbor, a man who lives across from the building, says he moved to the house where he now lives when he was nine years old. He’s now 61. Robert Garcia remembers three or four neighborhood grocery stores like the one just outside his home. Now they’re all gone. “Everything changes, but sometimes not for the better, bro,” he tells me.
Down the street, he says, the now-shuttered Aguilar Grocery was a pillar of the community, with an owner named Pee Wee who was the same. “Even though it was cheaper to get things somewhere else, I’d shop there, just out of respect for the man,” Garcia says.
Aguilar Grocery looks just like the tiendita I grew up with in Weslaco, Texas, from its sagging awning to its multiple screen doors. When I was little, getting to go to the tiendita to pick out a popsicle or soda was the best reward. Being denied a trip to the small store was a crushing punishment worthy of tears.
I ask Garcia where he shops for groceries now.
“I go to H-E-B, bro, just like everyone else.”
Linda Cardenas says her store changed quickly — “kind of overnight” — once the Covid-19 pandemic descended. The bar, which kept the business going, closed. Cardenas Grocery stopped serving cooked meals and began selling their ingredients instead to folks in the neighborhood who needed eggs, bread, bottled water, and other necessities. “The lines were so long at the larger stores, people needed basic food items and couldn’t get them,” she says. “So we took what we had in our stock and sold it.”
When that demand died down, people wanted take-out food and delivery. Cardenas Grocery began delivering meals exclusively to elderly customers in the neighborhood and opened up curbside pickup for everybody else. Many seniors in the area still haven’t entered any stores or restaurants since the pandemic began, Linda says.
Other customers don’t go inside the store, but for less health-related reasons.
“We still have a lot of young kids who say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to get out of our car, we just want to be on our phone waiting for the order,’” Linda explains.
Linda lives in a house that connects to the back of the bar, behind the grocery part of the store. The little tiendita is phasing out selling clothing but still has jewelry, snacks, and cigarettes beneath the colorful fiesta banner papers that adorn its ceilings. Soon, Amazon will add a wall of lockers inside the store for customers to pick up packages to thwart porch thieves.
Recently, Linda says, a group of grownups with kids told her they remembered playing arcade games at Cardenas Grocery when they were little. They’d get in trouble when their parents came to the store looking for them. Linda thinks nostalgia like that sometimes brings people back — the memory of a sweet childhood candy, a tiny bag of chips, or the rush of being old enough to buy your first lottery ticket. She recognizes that sometimes it’s a hipster’s wish to visit a more authentic locale than Wal-Mart.
The sad truth, though, is that most people want curbside, or grocery delivery, or wide aisles and miles of products. “I think it’s a dying breed, you know,” Linda says of stores like hers. Within two blocks, there’s another convenience store, a Dollar Tree, and a Dollar General — all of which sell snacks, drinks, and groceries.
I ask Linda if she’s optimistic about the future of Cardenas Grocery; the kind, sweet woman who spoke warmly about the store’s history takes a long pause before answering.
“I always think it’s good to be optimistic because if you’re going to do it, you might as well be optimistic about what you’re going to do,” she says, finally.
One thing that seems to work well for the store is Facebook, where the family posts raffle-prize winners and items from its menu like the crispy dogs and Big Red burger combo. Linda says, “As soon as we post something on Facebook, people remember us.”
For a store that has served the community for 71 years, those Likes become a matter of survival in 2020.